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THE ACTS OF PAUL AND THECLA. 



By Edgar J. Goodspeed, 
The University of Chicago. 



The religious romance known as the Acts of Paul and Thecla 
has of late become the object of peculiar interest through the 
discovery of the long-lost Acts of Paul. 1 While the opening 
sentence of the Acts of Paul and Thecla has always been felt to 
be abrupt, few scholars were prepared to find that this abrupt- 
ness was due to the removal of the romance from a larger work, 
the Acts of Paul, of which the Acts of Paul and Thecla originally 
formed part. 2 

The first of the Fathers to mention the Acts of Paul and 
Thecla is Tertullian, who inveighed against it on the ground 
of its advocacy of the rights of women to preach and to 
baptize. Tertullian seeks to overthrow the authority of the 
work by alleging that its author was a presbyter of Asia Minor 
who confessed to having forged the story from love of Paul, 
and who had been deposed from office in consequence. 3 The 

1 The standard edition of the Greek text of the Acts of Paul and Thecla is in 
Lipsius and Bonnet, Acta Apostolorum Apocrypha, I, 235-72. The Syriac is 
accessible in the translation of Professor Wright, Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, 
II, 116-45 ; 'he Armenian in Mr. Conybeare's translation, in The Acts of Apollonius 
and Other Monuments of Early Christianity, pp. 49-88. Harnack's statement as to 
date, Geschichte der altchristlichen Litteratur bis Eusebius, II, pp. 493-505, readily 
adjusts itself to the new facts disclosed by the recovery of the Coptic Acts of Paul. 
Cf Harnack, Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Littera- 
tur, neue Folge, IV, 3, "Drei wenig beachtete Cyprianische Schnften und die 'Acta 
Pauli,'" pp. 1-34; V, 3, pp. 100-106. 

2 The very recent recovery of considerable parts of the Acts of Paul in a Coptic 
form in a Heidelberg papyrus has already been noticed in American journals, and 
the fact is here recalled only for its important bearing on the origin of the Acts of 
Paul and Thecla as a constituent part of that larger work. 

3 That the Acts of Paul and Thecla had already been separated in common use 
from the parent body of Acts of Paul and was current, when Tertullian wrote, as an 
independent work, seems, from what that Father says, probable, but not quite certain. 

185 



1 86 THE BIBLICAL WORLD 

romance was written probably in the latter part of the second 
century — Harnack would say between 160 and 170 A. D. — and 
in Asia Minor. 4 Its purpose was clearly threefold : first, to 
defend the apostle against his Ebionite traducers, with their 
hints of personal attachment to his women converts ; second, to 
inculcate the practice of virginity and celibacy; and, third, to 
assert the right of women to preach and to baptize. In length 
it was a little longer than Second Corinthians. 5 

The scene is laid in Asia Minor. Paul is on one of his 
evangelizing tours in Lycaonia, and with two companions, 
Demas and Hermogenes, approaches Iconium. His personal 
appearance is described with such circumstantial detail as to 
suggest that possibly it preserves, in part at least, an authentic 
tradition ; certainly the apostle's admirer has not idealized him. 
" In stature," says the Syriac, " he was a man of middling size, 
and his hair was scanty, and his legs were a little crooked, and 
his knees were projecting, and he had large [the Armenian says 
"blue"] eyes, and his eyebrows met, and his nose was somewhat 
long, and he was full of grace and mercy ; at one time he seemed 
like a man, and at another time he seemed like an angel." An 
Iconian named Onesiphorus, with his wife and sons, goes forth 
to meet Paul and recognizes him by this description, which 
Titus has given him. Onesiphorus takes Paul to his house 
and entertains him. There, after prayer and the breaking of 
bread, Paul presents the virginity doctrine in a series of beati- 
tudes. 

From the window of an adjoining house Paul's words are 
overheard by a maiden named Thecla, the betrothed of one 
Thamyris. She is fascinated by his teaching and cannot be 
prevailed upon to leave the window from which she hears Paul's 

* The year 190 A. D., the probable date of the De Baptismo in which Tertullian 
assails this romance, here constitutes the terminus ad quern. 

5 Besides the Greek form of the romance, which is probably substantially the 
original form, there are Syriac, Latin, Armenian, Coptic, and Ethiopic versions, which 
sometimes diverge strikingly from the representation of the Greek. Thus much that 
Professor Ramsay has thought anachronistic in the Greek form disappears in the 
Armenian, while in the Ethiopic, with the omission of Thecla's admitted claim to 
preach and to baptize, half the point of the story is lost. 



ACTS OF PAUL AND THECLA 1 87 

voice. Alarmed at this her mother summons Thamyris, and 
tells him how for three days Thecla has not eaten nor drunk, but 
remained at her window. They both labor with her, to no pur- 
pose. On leaving the house, Thamyris, now greatly incensed, 
encounters Paul's companions, Demas and Hermogenes. He 
offers them money for information against Paul, and entertains 
them sumptuously. The men explain the virginity teaching and 
advise Thamyris to have Paul before the prefect on the charge 
of teaching a new doctrine and being a Christian. Accordingly 
the next day Paul is seized by Thamyris and his associates and 
brought before the prefect, by whom he is examined and com- 
mitted to prison. 

In his prison he is visited by Thecla, who escapes by night 
from her mother's house by bribing the doorkeeper with her 
bracelets, and gains admission to the prison by giving the jailer 
her silver mirror. In the prison she listens joyfully to the 
teachings of Paul, sitting at his feet and kissing his fetters. 
Meanwhile her family and her betrothed, aroused by her dis- 
appearance, are searching the city for her. The confession of 
the doorkeeper reveals her whereabouts, and her friends surprise 
her listening in the prison, with many others, to the apostle's 
preaching. They inform the prefect. He orders Paul and 
Thecla to be brought before him. Paul is scourged and cast out 
of the city, but Thecla, at her mother's instance, is condemned 
to be burned. The pile of fagots is prepared in the theater, and 
Thecla, encouraged by a vision of the Lord, stretches out her 
hands in the form of the cross and ascends the pile. But no 
sooner is the torch applied than a flood of rain extinguishes the 
fire, and Thecla is delivered. 

Meantime Paul, whose exile is shared by Onesiphorus and 
his family, has taken refuge in a wayside tomb near the city. 6 
As they have been long fasting, and have nothing to buy food 
with, Paul strips off his tunic, and sends it by a lad to the city, 

6 The Greek says " on the road by which they go from Iconium to Daphne," 
which the critics interpret as due to a confusion of the Pisidian Antioch with the 
Syrian Antioch ; the latter, it is well known, had a Daphne in its vicinity. Daphne 
is not mentioned in the Syriac, Armenian, or Ethiopia 



188 THE BIBLICAL WORLD 

to exchange for bread. This lad meets Thecla coming out of 
the city, and conducts her to Paul's hiding-place. She finds 
Paul praying for her deliverance from the flames, and dramati- 
cally responds with a prayer of thanksgiving for her preservation, 
to which Paul rejoins with a prayer of praise. After they have 
eaten, Thecla proposes to cut off her hair and follow Paul as 
his attendant, and asks the seal of baptism. Paul bids her be 
patient. Onesiphorus and his family now return to Iconium, and 
Paul and Thecla set off for Antioch. 

In Antioch a certain Alexander, one of the chief men of the 
city, was giving public spectacles. Alexander sees Thecla with 
Paul, and, being enamored of her, tries to buy her from Paul 
Paul protests that she is not his, and Alexander thereupon 
embraces her in the public street. She indignantly resists, tear- 
ing his festal garments and dashing from his head his crown 
of gold leaves with the image of the emperor. Alexander 
denounces her to the prefect, who examines her and, upon her 
confession of what she has done, condemns her to be thrown to 
the beasts. The ground for this seems to have been the insult 
to the divinity of the emperor, implied in dashing Alexander's 
wreath from his head. 7 Upon Thecla's petition that she be kept 
in purity until her execution, she is placed in the keeping of 
Queen Tryphsena, a cousin of the emperor Claudius. The 
queen, who has lately lost a daughter, finds consolation in the 
society of Thecla and conceives a great affection for her. 

The time appointed for Thecla's execution having arrived, 
she is brought into the theater and bound to a huge lioness. 
But the beast, instead of rending her, licks her feet. Queen 
Tryphaena, moved by a vision of her daughter, takes Thecla 
again to her house until the morrow, when she is exposed a 
second time to the beasts. Again they are powerless against 
her. A savage lioness takes up its position at her feet and 
defends her, killing a lion and a bear that are set upon her. 
While fresh beasts are being brought in, Thecla baptizes herself 
in the seal tank in the theater. The women among the spectators, 
filled with sympathy for Thecla, fling perfumes upon her. The 

? Thus the charge against Thecla in the Greek is sacrilege : she is Upt><rv\os. 



ACTS OF PAUL AND THECLA 1 89 

fresh beasts, instead of attacking Thecla, fall asleep about her. 
As a last resort she is bound to two savage bulls, and fiery spits 
are applied to them to infuriate them. But the fiery spits burn 
off the cords that bind Thecla, and she thus escapes the bulls. 
At this point Queen Tryphaena, who has been a horrified obser- 
ver of these ordeals, faints away. A report that she is dead is 
started by her slaves, and soon reaches the governor. The 
games are stopped, and at Alexander's express entreaty Thecla 
is released. She publicly ascribes her preservation to God, 
declaring herself his handmaiden, and the women of the city 
greet her release with acclamations and shouts of praise to him. 
Queen Tryphaena hails her as her daughter and takes her to her 
house, where Thecla's preaching leads the queen and many of 
her maidens to believe. 

Released from her difficulties Thecla resumes her search for 
Paul. Learning that he is in Myra, she disguises herself as a 
man, and with an escort from Queen Tryphsena's household goes 
thither in search of him. She finds him and narrates to him all 
her experiences, beginning with her baptism of herself in the 
theater. All join in thanksgiving over her repeated deliver- 
ances. She declares to Paul her intention to return to Iconium, 
and he replies with the words which give these Acts their chief 
significance: "Go and teach there the commandments of God." 
With this commission Thecla returns to Iconium. She learns that 
Thamyris is dead, but meets Onesiphorus and her mother, before 
whom she bears eloquent testimony to her new faith. Then, 
departing from Iconium, she takes up her abode in Seleucia, 
where, after a life devoted to the religious enlightenment of 
the people, she falls asleep. 

The obviously fictitious character of such a work hardly 
needs to be pointed out. Yet amid its extravagances are reflec- 
tions of historical conditions which reveal the times in which 
it was written. The condemnation of anyone merely on the 
charge of being a Christian is more natural in the days of Anto- 
ninus or Marcus Aurelius than earlier, and the entire absence of 
Jews from the list of the persecutors of Paul and Thecla betrays 
a late stage in the life of the early church. In Demas and 



1 90 THE BIBLICAL WORLD 

Hermogenes we have perhaps the slightly veiled impersona- 
tions of Gnostic error, which again, though of course nowhere 
explicitly mentioned, is combated in Paul's preaching in these 
Acts. While the most critical scholarship has favored a date in 
the latter half of the second century, and the recent discovery 
of these Acts in the Acts of Paul has greatly strengthened this 
position, one must not lose sight of the fact that there are some 
evidences of exact topographical and historical information as 
to Lycaonia in the time of Paul which argue for some ele- 
ments of tradition in the Acts of Paul and Thecla an origin in 
the first century. These have been skilfully detected by Pro- 
fessor Ramsay. 8 

The popularity of this singular romance is well attested and 
easily understood. Its early separation from the parent Acts of 
Paul, the selection of it by Tertullian as an object of attack, and 
its translation, as a separate work, into many languages, illustrate 
its popularity ; and in times when the celibate life was growing 
in popular favor, when marvelous martyrdoms were increasingly 
in demand, and when old men and maidens were the favorite 
figures among Christian confessors, popularity for a work like 
the Acts of Paul and Thecla was natural and inevitable. 

8 Cf. Ramsay, The Church in the Roman Empire, pp. 375-428 ; and Conybeare, 
The Acts of Apollonius, etc., pp. 49 ff.